Why I Loathe Paywalls

I have been experimenting with Medium and I can’t say my experiment has been long enough to really come up with quantifiable results, but what I’ve found so far is disheartening and proves my theories about the profound failure of paywalls.

Medium is a site where to read more than 3 articles a month, you must pay $5 a month. The twist on this paywall is that some of that money goes back to creators as revenue. I have used it for about a month and posted several articles and poems. You can see my work at http://www.medium.com/@meteorsandtime. I started off strong; as strong as can be expected for minimal external promotion. Stats like 9 views, 3 reads. Still nothing like the engagement of Twitter.

But as the month progressed I tested the theory that quantity yields profits and was sorely disappointed, enough to give up on the site. I know it takes time to build an audience and you have to market your work, but when an article I’m proud of gets 0 views and 0 reads, indicating that people are reading but not subscribing, I would rather market my own blog on my own website.

This then brings me to the fundamental problem with paywalls. Content creators and news sites have invested in the idea that this is the business model that will save journalism and the arts. Why give away your work for free?

But ultimately, paywalls don’t work.

The reason is that people don’t value creative pursuits in our society. And after years of expecting free content, it’s impossible to upgrade expectations. Besides, I would argue that it is philosophically wrong to expect otherwise.

When I was a cub reporter at a small town twice weekly newspaper, my editor told me something about business models that really stuck with me. Newspapers don’t make their profits from their subscription base. They make money from advertisers. The theory goes that you have quality content and news that informs people’s lives and decisions. You build up an audience and exposure first. An advertiser is more likely to buy a spot in a newspaper that is read by 30,000 customers than 5.

Social media works the same way. The profit is not in the content. The profit is in the users themselves. The more users post revealing information about their personal data, and the more users there are, then advertisers will buy that information. Their product is you. If you ask me, newspapers’ fatal flaw was that they were not tech savvy enough to invent social media.

But, back to newspapers. Craigslist and free advertising online killed advertising for newspapers. So then they felt they had to place more of the burden on readers to make up for the profit margin. But subscriptions will never catch up because you always have to factor in what people are willing to pay. Even though subscriptions are the trendy new thing; every app wants to charge you $5-20 per month to use it instead of a flat fee. Supposedly, there’s profit doing that way, but I would argue that is a limited resource.

I would also argue that paywalls go against both the culture of the Internet and the principles of the fourth estate.

In environmentalism it’s called the public domain, or the commons. I firmly believe that arts and news are like national parks, air and water. Some things are just in the public interest to be free. We need to know when there is a traffic accident blocking our commute. We need to know when public officials are behaving in corrupt ways. We need to know when a sex offender moves next door. We also need the healing power of art.

How, then, are you supposed to make any money off it? People equate that with the expectation of free stuff. That’s one reason why I don’t shoot portraits anymore. People don’t want to hire artists. It’s the fundamental paradox of our time.

But paywalls are not the answer.

That said, if you liked this article and my work here on this site, which I offer for free because I don’t believe in paywalls, consider donating to my Ko-Fi to support my creative endeavors if they are something you value! Shameless plug, yes I know http://ko-fi.com/fieldofstars. My solution to this philosophical dilemma is just that. At the end of every blog post you’ll find a link to my Ko-Fi and I hope you’ll consider supporting my journey with more than emotional support.

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